I used to think, back when I was backpacking around the Middle East, that the very worst place to sleep was next to a mosque, being jolted awake long before dawn by the call to prayer. Living next to a monastery in Myanmar, however, I have come to realize the error of my beliefs. For a religion founded on contemplative meditation and the quiet peace found under a jungle tree, Myanmar’s Buddhist monks are an awfully noisy lot.
Part of this is not entirely their fault. At 3 am, the first clear, ringing tones of their flat, rotating bell-chimes pierce the air. This is actually a very calm, beautiful sound, the sort of noise that fits in well with a dream. Unfortunately, it’s accompanied by other, less soporific noise. The monks are in the habit of feeding their leftovers to the packs of stray dogs which infest Myanmar. The dogs, in true Pavlovian fashion, associate this bell with approaching mealtimes. Unfortunately, instead of restricting their conditioning to merely salivating, the dogs howl and bay like a pack of wolves, loud enough to wake the dead, or at least the sleeping. The barking dies away eventually, but by now the roosters are awake and adding their contribution to the general racket, continuing until a bleary dawn.
The worst part of the noise, though, is entirely due to the conscious efforts of the monks. Loudspeakers are one of those critical technologies that should never have been transferred to countries like Myanmar. During festivals in October, December and May, hideously over-amplified appeals for donations assail the eardrums of anyone within a mile radius of a monastery, continuing 24 hours a day for up to a week. They sound like a cross between an airport boarding announcement and Bob Dylan warming up his larynx. The effect of this garbled caterwauling on your psyche is hard to exaggerate; I now know why Manuel Noriega gave himself up to American forces all those years ago. And if the monasteries don’t undo your karmic peace of mind, the noise trucks which meander through the neighbourhoods all night certainly will.
At least I don’t live along a main road. There, during fundraising season, the loudspeakers are turned up to full blast while local kids and housewives rattle stones in metal almsbowls in order to coax contributions from passing motorists. It seems a bit self-defeating; I would certainly keep my car windows rolled up tight to preserve my sanity.
Nor are festivals the only excuse for a good cacophony. One neighbourhood monastery (not, luckily, the one right next door) erupts every single day of the year at 6 am and 9 pm with cheerful songs of praise over a sound system that might have been borrowed from Pink Floyd’s last world tour. I didn’t know enough electricity made it through the decrepit Myanmar power grid to support so much noise. Anyone living nearby would have their windows rattling and their eardrums buzzing.
The single noisiest Buddhist event, though, is a procession escorting boys to a monastery in order to spend a week or two as a monk. It’s a major occasion, with the boys dressed in white robes, their faces made up, seated on white ponies and escorted by their extended families on the long road to the monastery. A wealthy family may even hire an elephant for effect. All this is colourful and easy on the eyes, but the accompanying cycle-rickshaw with the twin loudspeakers is very, very hard on the ears. I don’t know how they can produce more decibels than stationary monasteries, but through a miracle of mobile technology, they do. I once had to stop talking, indoors in an eighth-storey room, because I couldn’t make myself heard even while shouting over the crackling, echoing din of a passing procession far below.
So if, like me, you’re a light sleeper, don’t be put off coming to Myanmar and seeing its truly fabulous people and sights. Just remember to pack your earplugs, and keep a wary eye out for monasteries in the vicinity of your guesthouse!